New exhibition explores the role of women during the First World War

A new exhibition has opened at Mansfield Museum exploring the role played by women during the First World War.

By Andy Done-Johnson
Sunday, 9th February 2014, 11:03 am

It is the first of three exhibits set to take place at the Leeming Street venue throughout 2014 - to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the start of the Great War in 1914.

Entitled ‘Everybody’s Darling’ - the exhibition focuses on the thousands of women who left civilian life to work in field hospitals, often just yards from the front line, in France and around the world.

But it also explores other traditional male roles within the workplace of the time that women filled during the 1914-18 conflict.

Aimed at a family audience, the exhibit also explores the conflict as a basis for the changing role of women in society and the workplace throughout the remainder of the century, but avoids reference to the British suffragette movement, which was a powerful political force at the start of hostilities.

The movement suspended political activities at the outbreak of war, instead devoting its efforts to encouraging women into work and men into the armed forces - issuing white feathers as a symbol of cowardice to the non-compliant.

Speaking about the exhibition, Jodie Henshaw from the museum told Chad: “We feel it’s important to mark the sacrifices made by all sides in the war – not to celebrate the war itself but to recognise the suffering caused to all the millions involved.

“And that means not just the soldiers but also the countless others behind the front, at home and abroad, who gave up so much for their fellow man.

“The nurses featured in our exhibition are perhaps the prime example of this.”

The exhibit explores the main nursing groups and organisations that rallied to the cause - from those formally attached to the military to the thousands of volunteers who worked in field hospitals on both the western and eastern fronts, as well as Gallipoli and Mesopotamia.

It charts the emergence of military nursing through the 10,000 women who served through the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service and the Territorial Force Nursing Service, and explores the roles played by the 90,000 female volunteers who found themselves close to the front line through organisations such as the Red Cross and the Order of St John, as well as the Voluntary Aid Detachments and the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry.

The exhibition also explores the role played by some nurses in espionage activities - focusing on the life and death of Edith Cavell, who was executed in 1915 for the role she played in smuggling more than 200 British soldiers back from behind enemy lines.

Jodie added: “During the First World War thousands of women served as nurses. While many assisted in hospitals at home, others worked close to the battlefields. Nurses were closer to the front-line than in any previous conflict. For many of the privileged young women who became nurses the work was a huge culture shock.

“The nurses made a great and lasting impression and commanded great respect. They provided vital skills and fulfilled an essential role.

“Many also risked and sometimes lost their lives. Their contribution, however, has often been overshadowed by the events on the battlefields themselves. This exhibition explores the many different nursing organisations that served during the war and the experiences of the nurses themselves.”

Aside from nursing, the exhibition also pays homage to the 700,000 women who abandoned their tradition roles to work in munitions factories, the 23,000 landgirls and the further 100,000 who worked on the railways and in public transport.

But the bubble was about to burst and as the war ended, men returned from fighting and expected the ‘fairer sex’ to return to their traditional duties and make room on the production lines.

“As soon as the war ended the number of working women fell away rapidly as ex-servicemen reclaimed their jobs,” one exhibition board explains. “Many contracts of employment had decreed that women would only be employed for the duration of the war.”

But with the end of the fighting also came a new dawn with the passing of the Representation of the People Act in 1918 - allowing the vote for women aged over 30 - followed by the Equal Franchise Act a decade later, bringing the age down to 21.

Everybody’s Darling: The First World War Nurse is open until Thursday 27th March. In April the museum will host Last Post: Remembering the First World War - which explores the part played in the First World War by the Post Office.

And on October, Mansfield Museum will host the much-anticipated Clipstone Camp and World War I in Mansfield - which will explore the history of the largest training camp during the conflict.

PICTURED: Postcards from the time depicting nurses, and an image from a military hospital in Leicestershire.